Howard “Howie” Thomson is a popular pow wow MC from Carry the Kettle Nakoda (Assiniboine) First Nation located in Saskatchewan, Canada. There’s a long line of pow wow tradition in his family, as well as farming. Thomson says that though he is a strong follower of traditional pow wow ways, it is important to consider the healing nature of laughter.
"I love to work a pow wow with smiles and laughter. I love to hear and see different song and dance," says Thomson. "I dance pow wow and sometimes sing. The pow wow trail is a never ending trail of friendships and love. I travel anywhere to help out whenever I’m needed."
His fun attitude and approach to pow wow emceeing has proved to be infectious. As a result of emceeing this way for 15 years now, Thomson is booked solid throughout each pow wow season and travels thousands of miles all over the United States and Canada.
Thomson talked with ICTMN about his journey to become a popular pow wow MC, what he thinks are the greatest qualities of a good MC, and how he believes in the healing power of laughter.
How long have you been a pow wow MC?
I have been a pow wow MC for about 15 years. I am also a dancer and a farmer. I come from a long line of brothers that farm. My dad farmed and ranched; my in-laws are farmers too. We had a grain farm with horses and cattle, but we got rid of the horses and cattle, now we just lease out our land. I’m from Saskatchewan Canada; it is easy to draw but hard to spell.
Why are you so popular in Indian country?
The demand for a crazy MC is overwhelming. If people want an MC that is crazy, off-the-wall and keeps it clean – well, I am your man. I am off-the-wall, I don't lose a crowd, if I start to lose a crowd, I'll throw a joke in there and they will get back on track. Otherwise it is too boring. I am booked right until the end of November. When I get to the months of June and July I am emceeing every day until August.
I like to make people laugh. I use humor. Because in our ceremonies, they tell us that humor is a natural healing element for the loss of anything. A lot of people, when they are in mourning, they put the pow wow away.
But I encourage them to come back into the circle. Once you hear a laugh or laughter, you have done your job. Somebody might be sick, in pain – but they forget for a nano-second when they laugh. That is what it's all about.
How did you get started as an MC?
As a tribal member, I was chairing meetings or I was an MC at a wedding or an Indian auction. Sometimes I would call bingo. When I would do this, I would be telling jokes. One day there was a pow wow with a weak MC but they had a low-budget. I said, "Man, if I ever get a hold of that microphone I will liven up the spirit of this pow wow. I'll make this the way it should be."
I got started from there. People would say, "Howie, have you ever done a pow wow?" I said no, and they asked me to give it a try. I said, "I'll give it a whirl, I'm kind of crazy," and that's how it is.
At one pow wow, I wasn't the MC but the family asked me if I wanted to talk. I took the microphone and as I was talking, I was telling humorous Indian jokes and pow wow jokes. I was doing it more than the MCs were. They asked me to do the MC work at different pow wows. I love what I do.
What have been some of your favorite pow wows?
That would be my very own because we can get crazy there and we know everybody (editor’s note: that’s the Carry the Kettle Pow Wow; this year it will be held July 19-21. Contact the band office for more information at 306-727-2135). The other ones I love doing are those that I can drive a long way to. I drive because I like the history of the land. I like seeing stuff you could not see from the air. When I fly all I see is clouds. I’d rather drive to get all of that information. It also gives you time in between pow wows to think of craziness or what can I do.
I would rather drive than fly. People ask me if I fly, "I tell them I could fly, but my arms are too weak."
My favorite pow wows are the traditional pow wows. They treat everyone the same and there are no big political rules. Let's just have fun. I have been to pow wows where they told me, 'who told you to tell a joke?' Holy cow, I didn't know the Creator gave you a frown. But I'm going to turn it upside down before I'm done.
Where do you do pow wows?
I go all over North America. This year already I have been to Iowa City, Fargo, and I recently went to Stanford University to do their pow wow. In a couple weeks I am going to Muckleshoot in Washington state (editor’s note: that’s the Muckleshoot Veteran’s Powwow, June 14-16. Click here for more information). I go all over Canada and the United States. I don't negotiate for big dollars, if they are there, they are there, if they are not, they are not.
I enjoy life. I bring my family with me if they want to come. If they don't it is a lonely trip, but we have an extended family all over Indian country. I also have a lot of non-Native relatives that I meet up with. We sit and talk and tease. They tell me jokes too.
What keeps you busy outside of pow wows?
I do a lot of other work. I go into schools and emcee for different government levels or different First Nation levels.
I am a ceremonial man and I will go to sweat lodges or sun dances, and I will pay my dues there. I give a lot of thank yous there.
What advice would you give to a young person that wanted to be a pow wow MC?
Stay in school otherwise you will be an MC. Another thing I would say is keep dancing at pow wows. If you are good you will be a dancer, if you are no good you will become an MC.
What are some key qualities of a good pow wow MC?
The key is no dead air, keep it going and don't stop talking. Keep to the agenda and work with your time limit. Another thing is to try not to repeat yourself, try not to repeat yourself, try not to repeat yourself. [interviewer laughs very loud]
I see you are enjoying this interview.
You travel all over the place. Is there a difference between pow wows in Canada and in the U.S.?
The only difference between Canadian pow wows and U.S. pow wows is that you get Canadian dollars at the Canadian pow wows and U.S. dollars at the U.S. pow wows. There are some difference in dances at different parts of different regions in the Canada and United States.
The songs are all the same, we all dance the same, we all pray the same way, we all honor the drum the same way, and we go to the same circle. I have never seen a difference, and if there is a difference, I’m going to have to go back to rodeos.